When Scott Kettner looks at a map, he sees a direct line that connects the rivers of northeastern Brazil to the parishes of New Orleans and the streets of Brooklyn. A master percussionist, bandleader, producer and songwriter, Kettner is the guiding force behind Nation Beat, a band whose teeming, vibrant rhythms find common ground in the primal maracatu of Brazil’s Pernambuco region, the Big Easy’s funky, hypnotic second-line and strolling Mardi Gras Indians, and the unfettered freedom of big-city downtown jazz—with a little bit of this and that tossed in.
No less an icon than Willie Nelson, who invited Nation Beat to perform at his 2008 Farm Aid concert, proclaimed, “ After I heard their CD I became a fan and I was overwhelmed by their music.” Equally enthusiastic was writer, David R. Adler of Philadelphia Online,who described Nation Beat as “ a pan-hemispheric, post-colonial party; a rootsy rhythm riot, conceived in bright colors and infectious melodies.”
For Kettner, the discovery of maracatu, an indigenous Brazilian rhythm, albeit one not ascelebrated internationally as samba and bossa nova, was a life-changing experience. The great jazz drummer Billy Hart, who served as Kettner’s instructor at New York’s New School University, first informed him of the mysterious music. “He was turning me on to African music from different regions,” says Kettner, “and we started getting into Afro-Cuban rhythms and Brazilian rhythms. After a couple of years studying samba and bossanova, I asked him, ‘ Are there any other rhythms from Brazil that I should be learning? ’He said, ‘Yeah, man, there’ s this music called maracatu!’ I pointed to his drumset and said, ‘Show it to me,’ and he said, ‘I don’ t know how to play that! That’s a badass rhythm and you have to go learn it and come back and teach it to me.’ ”
Intrigued, Kettner began asking Brazilian musicians based in New York how he could learn about maracatu. Even most of them knew nothing of it. The only thing to do, Kettner reasoned, was to go to Brazil and find maracatu. Upon graduating in 2000, he spent a year living in the country, based primarily in the northeastern city of Recife ,living in a favela, studying maracatu and other, even more obscure Brazilian rhythms with his new mentor, Jorge Martins.
“It’ s regional music and it’ s partially marginalized,” explains Kettner. “ Maracatu evolved out of the crowning ceremonies of kings and queens during the slavery period. It’ s related to the Candomblé religion. It differs from bossa nova because it’ s percussion-based music. It’s just voice and drums and it’ s not popular music like bossa nova. Samba and maracatu have what I believe is a similar root in the Afro-Brazilian heritage, but thecultural manifestation is different.”
After returning to the States in 2002, Kettner assembled Nation Beat, incorporating the maracatu rhythms with elements of jazz and the myriad sounds of Louisiana. The similarities between the Brazilian music he came to love and the southern rhythms he grew up with became apparent to Kettner as he began writing for the new band. “ If you look at Cajun and Zydeco music, it’ s the same thing,” he says. “ Maracatu is processional music—it’ s all drums and voice and chants, just like the New Orleans second line bands and the Mardi Gras Indians. The most obvious connection was the African root. There’ s a certain celebratory vibe to the music from New Orleans and Recife, Brazil, that I found a strong connection with. This led me to the idea of bringing the Mississippi River together with the Capibaribe River of Recife.”
Nation Beat has recorded three albums thus far, 2005’ s “Maracatuniversal” featuring Maracatu Nação Estrela Brilhante, “Legends of the Preacher” featuring the Klezmatics in 2008 and “Growing Stone” that was just released in September of 2011. Legends finds NationBeat taking the initial concept further. As its liner notes describe it, the sophomore effort incorporates not only maracatu but other Brazilian styles such as forro, coco, ciranda,frevo and repente with such American genres as New Orleans funk, rock, jazz, bluegrass,and country blues. The Grammy-winning Klezmatics collaborate on three tracks, and the song list includes an interpretation of the Hank Williams classic “ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that is simply like no other.
But Kettner was never content only to record the music with his own group. At the sametime he returned from Brazil to play maracatu, he also launched a school in Brooklyn,Maracatu New York (www.maracatuny.com), in order to alert others to what he’d learned. Still going strong today, the institution is described as “ New York’ s first and only maracatu ensemble dedicated to the performance and knowledge” of the music.
Since bringing maracatu to the States, maracatu—due largely to Kettner’ s efforts—has begun to find a foothold. “ Now groups are springing up all over the country,” he says.“ I go to universities all over the country and teach maracatu now. I did a cultural exchange program between Recife and New York. I’ ve brought students to Recife for Carnaval. It’s become a movement.”
Kettner also keeps himself busy writing songs for and producing other artists. “ Infinito,” a song he co-wrote with fellow Brazilian percussion great Cyro Baptista, served as the title track of the latter’s most recent album, and Kettner has also written for the Brazilian group Cascabulho and the New York-based accordionist Rob Curto. Kettner’s production credits also include tracks on Matuto, the 2009 album by guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross.
Nation Beat, however, remains his primary focus, and the group’s next move is always eagerly anticipated by its growing legion of fans. Each performance has been met with an ecstatic response from audiences, and critics have heaped praises upon the band: “Nothing short of inspirational” (NPR’ s All Things Considered); “ Dance music in its primal, untainted state” (Conscious Choice); “ Near addictive” (Time Out Chicago); and “ Inspired ambassadors of Brazilian sounds” (San Francisco Bay Guardian) are just afew of the plaudits they’ve received.
Where Scott Kettner will go next is anyone’s guess, but you can be sure he’ll continue to find connections where no others have seen them before, and to create new sounds where none have ever heard them. Like maracatu itself, he’ s only just begun to make his presence felt.